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Mike Wofford: Jazz Explorations


Bio: Having appeared on over two hundred recordings as a sideman, pianist Mike Wofford now continues to record and perform primarily as a leader. A native Texan, Wofford was raised in San Diego, California, where he resides currently. Wofford performs and tours with his own groups and as co-leader in a quartet with his wife, flutist Holly Hofmann.

Q: Mike, did you naturally gravitate toward playing the piano?

M: I never really studied formally -- at least as far as serious piano study is concerned. When I first started at the age of seven, it was much different than it would be today. There were piano teachers in almost every neighborhood, typically maybe a housewife. There were very few music schools per se; it was mostly private teachers teaching out of their own home, some good, others not always that proficient themselves. I’m almost completely self-taught. I don’t necessarily recommend it to anyone. Although I did briefly have one teacher named Bill Franks later on who gave me primarily a very good grounding in harmony (he’d idolized the great Teddy Wilson), I wish I’d had a good classical teacher as well. I try to tell young student pianists now when they ask me what I recommend to learn jazz that the first thing is getting a really good classical piano teacher.

Now, of course, they usually don’t want to hear that -- that’s the last thing they want to hear, but that’s my advice, partly because I had to teach myself and overcome a lot of shortcomings later on that were the result of a lack of really good regimented early study. Also, classical study, besides the technical aspect, instills a discipline and ultimately a self-confidence that is invaluable later on in one’s performing. I didn’t really take the piano seriously until I was in high school and heard my first modern jazz recordings through a friend in the school band -- I was a pretty good trombonist, and I’ve always thought that might’ve been my second choice as an instrument. Anyway, the sound of that music was what awoke a new interest in me for the piano. I’d never thought much about it one way or the other before then.

I always loved music and particularly classical music -- 20th century classical music as I got older -- but I didn’t really think in terms of a career or pursuing music at that time. Jazz is what really turned me around. I was about 16 at the time and it almost single handedly whetted my appetite as far as the piano and music in general. We’d had good jazz records in my home when I was a kid -- today what you would call more traditional jazz, Bix Beiderbecke, whom I still love, Eddie Condon, and people like that. I remember we had Billie Holiday records; these were of course 78s at that time. And there was also a lot more jazz on the radio in those days. You could hear broadcasts of people like Teddy Wilson, Art Tatum, Herman Chittison, Raymond Scott, the big bands, and a little later, Bird, Diz, Miles, Bud Powell -- in a way there was more jazz in, and on, the air, than you have available today. You have to really seek it out much more now.

Q: How did Art Tatum’s music, whose influence you’ve mentioned, affect you?

M: I think the thing that strikes one about Art Tatum is the sound and the sophistication, the intellect -- not just the staggering technique, but the imaginative mind at work. Even when you hear his recordings today it’s startling, but try to imagine how it must have sounded in 1938, or 1948? Those earliest records from the late ‘30s are phenomenal and he only grew more lyrical, mature and emotionally moving with time. In many ways his finest recordings were made shortly before his death in 1956. There was only one Art Tatum, and there will never be a duplicate as far as I’m concerned. They’ll be other great players, but nothing like that. He stands alone in the jazz world.

He had fans in the classical world as well –- Horowitz and, I believe, Rubenstein. Tatum just got better with age; he was amazing in that respect. There was no falling off in his abilities. On the contrary, he became stronger and more complete up until his very last recordings at the age of 46. You know, that’s not always the case. A lot of major artists begin to taper off at some point and really did their best playing early on. But Art Tatum became even more astounding and original as he grew older. I’d also add one thing -- I’ve made kind of a study of this after listening to most of Art’s recorded work. And that is, somewhere in these recordings you can find, however briefly, a foreshadowing of the harmonic devices and ideas of every great modern jazz pianist who’s come later -- Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner, Monk, and on and on. It’s all right there, except, he was the first.

Q: What was the jazz scene like in the 1950’s when you moved to Los Angeles?

M: I moved there from San Diego in the late ‘50s and had a day job at an aircraft factory while trying to get established playing. It was during the period then known more or less as West Coast Jazz. By the time I got up there that era was beginning to come to a close. It was still a wonderful time though -- lots of clubs and so many great players, a lot going on with many places to work around town.

Q: In that period you played with the Lighthouse All Stars band. Please share that experience.

M: By the time I joined the band at the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach, there had already been many, many great jazz players who had worked there -- Shelly Manne, Max Roach, Chet Baker, Frank Rosolino, Conte Candoli and one of my all time favorite pianists, Sonny Clark. He’s not terribly well known but made some wonderful records later on in New York. I used to go listen to him at the Lighthouse. He was in the band before I joined. Ground breaking pianist Andrew Hill actually followed me briefly when I left. Miles Davis had also been kind of a regular there when he came out to LA at one point.

Q: When did you meet the great jazz drummer Shelly Manne?

M: Well, I met him in 1961or ’62 when I worked in his club, Shelly’s Manne-hole. I worked there with Shorty Rogers’ and Bud Shank’s bands. Shelly heard me with them, and in 1967 called me to join his own band since his pianist Russ Freeman was leaving. I stayed with him off and on until his death in 1984.

Q: Why did Shelly open his own jazz club?

M: He said he just wanted a place where he could play, and could hire all the people that he admired and wanted to go listen to himself. It was one of those great clubs to work in, the feel of a real jazz club. It was a labor of love for him, I know. I think he lost money pretty much most of the time. It was relatively successful as far as clubs go, but it was definitely never a money making operation for him, after all the payroll, lease, operating expenses, artists’ fees and so on. It was a kind of payback thing for Shelly – something he just wanted to do, I think.

Q: What did Shelly Manne offer you musically during the time you played together?

M: He always made you feel the music was the primary thing at all times. He made good money in his lifetime doing other things, motion pictures and TV, but when it came to jazz it was always solely about the music, and he just imparted that when you were around him. It wasn’t something he talked about a lot. He just exuded a love of the music and the drums. He was very meticulous at tuning drums properly, for instance, and making sure the cymbals were the right timbre.

He was a good percussionist also, although he worked primarily as a drummer. In one of his later bands I was in, he actually started playing more percussion instruments in performance. He had some Brazilian instruments like the Berimbau, really beautiful, that he’d brought up from South America. Shelly also swung harder than almost any drummer I’ve ever known -- unbelievable looseness and even delicacy at the same time. Also, he was such an ethical and caring guy. I was honored to work for him. He had a great sense of humor and he was a natural comic too, with great comedic timing, that New York humor from the Catskills, the Borscht Belt. A very special human being.

Q: In the 1960s and ‘70s you played with the great jazz singer Irene Kral. Describe that experience.

M: That was really a treat. She was one of the truly gifted singers, but outside of the jazz community Irene didn’t receive much recognition. Most everyone in the jazz world knew about her, but she never really sang with any of the big bands, which was the normal career track for most jazz vocalists then. I think maybe Maynard Ferguson’s Band for a while. To her detriment, she was at various times in her life off the scene as a stay-at-home mom raising kids. She was a very intimate singer, not cut out to be a crowd pleaser with a larger following. Irene had an amazing repertoire of jazz material, all either jazz originals by people like Dave Frishberg and Bob Dorough, for example, or the exceptional, more obscure standards. She had natural time and feeling, right-on intonation and enunciation, and always made a lyric mean something.

Q: It must have been a pleasure to play with a singer with such a talent.

M: It was. There’s a live CD available now, that’s not recorded well unfortunately, that I did with her with a trio in San Diego. It was just rediscovered and released a few years ago. It was done by an engineer who happened to be in the club one night and recorded it for fun, I think. I’m very proud of it, in spite of its problems. It’s the only recording I made with her, so I’m happy I have it.

Q: Art Blakey felt that if “they” would market jazz music like they do any other American product, jazz would receive the kind of attention it rightly deserves.

M: I’ve seen that quote, and there is some truth to it. But I think it’s much more complicated than that. I’ve heard many times over the years from other musicians that if jazz were marketed properly it would have the same popularity, you know, as rock, R&B or rap, or at least be better able to compete. I think there’s more to it than that, but that’s the subject of another discussion; there are other social and cultural issues involved besides just marketing.

Q: Having a degree in philosophy, do you feel there is a connection between philosophy and music for you?

M: Very much so. Truly important and meaningful music, notably in the classical or jazz traditions, is highly intellectual art making, I feel, and encompasses all areas of human life and engages in philosophical issues, particularly the concept of truth, in a way that most pop music, say, really doesn’t. There have, of course, been some exceptions -- Lennon/McCartney come to mind -- and I have been a fan of a lot of rock ‘n’ roll and R&B, for instance, for most of my life -- but I wouldn’t generally describe pop music as a very intellectually stimulating pursuit. It’s dance music, and its fun and entertainment, and it is what it is, but you really have to enter the worlds of jazz – true, authentic jazz, that is -- and classical music to encounter something more eloquent and profound. And when you reach that plane, you’ve immediately entered the philosophical. All the important composers and players in both the classical and jazz worlds, while maybe not technically trained in formal philosophy, have been very insightful philosophers. Consider Beethoven and Louis Armstrong.

Q: Joseph Campbell once said, “The musician is a modern poet in society.” What do you think the function of a musician is in society today?

M: An interesting question. Other than as simple entertainment, which has its place as we’ve said, music can deal in ultimate truths for people. And jazz is beautifully equipped to convey those pure ideas. Art Tatum playing “Aunt Hagar’s Blues,” does just that for me.

Q: For someone who is not a pianist, what has to be understood technically to express one’s ideas and be free on the instrument?

M: Well, there was an interesting thing I read years ago. Someone was comparing the amazing pianist Oscar Peterson, with his phenomenal pyrotechnical skills, to Thelonious Monk, who many would say had little or no technique (I don’t agree at all). Monk lived his whole life with criticism in this respect. But a point was made that I think begins to answer your question: that actually, Thelonious Monk had superb technique, if you define it as ‘the ability in improvisation to play exactly what you hear, exactly what you wish, in exactly the perfect way for that moment to express your own personal identity’. That answer is, in a way, peculiar to jazz, I think. I don’t know that you can make quite the same statement in regard to a classical pianist interpreting Debussy or Mozart, although there is some crossover. But regarding jazz improvisation, that’s about as good an answer as I can come up with. There’s technique and then there’s technique, so to speak. I don’t teach really, but I do get asked occasionally by students about technique in regard to learning to play jazz. I recommend, as I spoke of earlier, that more than anything else they study with a classical teacher. As you’re probably aware, jazz piano has become much more technically demanding in the last couple of decades than it was earlier on. Other than Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson, Nat Cole and a few others, many early great players were not necessarily phenomenally gifted, technically speaking. They often had very little formal training, but yet were still marvelous innovators and really unique, original sounding players. That’s one of the beauties of jazz. Think of, for example, Fats Waller, Horace Silver, Mal Waldron, Bobby Timmons, Wynton Kelly, Andrew Hill and Sonny Clark. But, in the last few decades, jazz piano has become a much more complex animal, and it requires a lot more almost classical technique and dexterity.

You know, Bill Evans brought greater pianistic control and facility back to jazz piano. A lot of the pianists coming between Art Tatum and Bill Evans played much harder, heavier piano; it could be marvelous rhythmically and dynamically as far as the swing and the feel, but they weren’t necessarily terribly pianistic players -- Hank Jones, for instance, would be a notable exception. That really began to change dramatically with Bill Evans. Names like Herbie Hancock and now Brad Mehldau are people who are phenomenally gifted and trained pianists.

Getting back to Thelonious Monk, I know he was a much better pianist essentially than most people give him credit for. He was actually a very good pianist, but he carved out his own way of playing. I just finished a marvelous book, a wonderful biography on Monk by Robin Kelley; he talks a lot about that. Monk seems to have made a conscious decision early on to pursue a different message, his own. His playing changed very little up until his death. And he’ll still be, I think, remembered a hundred years from now in jazz history much more so than other, more facile players.

Q: Looking at a photograph of Willie “The Lion” Smith you could see what a strong player he was.

M: Those guys, you know, the early stride players were amazing, and had to be a one-man- band often. They sometimes played long hours for dancing -- just solo piano -- and in many cases at people’s houses and apartments for rent parties. That’s a whole other interesting history, stride playing in Harlem in New York in the ‘20s and later.

Q: Mike, how do you approach dealing with a different piano when you encounter it at a venue?

M: I’ve talked to pianists about it over the years. You have to overcome the reality of always being faced with a new instrument, some being better than others of course. Obviously, if you’re a horn player, or a violinist, you’re going to have your own instrument at all times. And even if it’s a terrible room with terrible acoustics, or whatever the problems may be, at least you have your own instrument. The pianist has the great joy of always being surprised, for better or worse. A wonderful pianist I knew, Jimmy Rowles in Los Angeles, used to talk about “making friends” with the piano. That’s basically what it really boils down to. The thing I look for, first of all, is if there are any really horrible intonation problems. If there are just a few, you learn over the years how to fix them temporarily -- there are some tricks, like muting some of the worst offending strings in the upper octaves with wadded matchbook covers or business cards, for example; if you have a tuning hammer, you can fix some bad strings also, but you can also create new problems if you’re not an experienced tuner.

If the piano is hopeless, you just have to make the best of it. We’ve talked about Art Tatum -- I used to hear people say he could sit down at any instrument and sound like himself and beautiful. Jimmy Rowles, whom I mentioned earlier, was like that. It’s something you can develop to a certain extent over the years. I think I’ve reached a point where I can pretty quickly decide what is and what isn’t going to work on a given piano, and make the necessary adjustments. A lot of it is just subconscious; after a while you’re not even aware of thinking what to avoid and what not to. It’s just kind of a sixth sense. These are problems that are also somewhat generational. More and more today, playing situations for young performers are going to involve electronic keyboards and not acoustic pianos. Obviously, in that case you don’t have the same issues.

Q: What is your favorite piano to play on?

M: The Steinway has always been my first choice, way beyond any of the others. Probably my second choice for a runner up would be a good Yamaha, and often a good Kawai or Mason and Hamlin. Steinway has had good and bad years, but a good one is still the best, I think. They have a feel, they just feel right, a rich resonant low end, the overall quality is so consistent -- it’s just a marvelous instrument. Of course, the 9’ concert grand is magnificent. Also one of my favorites was always the Steinway B from the 1920s, I think, a mid-size instrument common in better clubs and venues years ago. Now I’d say Yamahas are probably the most common better pianos pretty much everywhere.

Q: What kind of action do you prefer on a piano? Do you prefer a lighter action?

M: I’m not that fussy really. It’s more important that the action be even. I think a firmer action is much better for your own personal use at home practicing. I would always recommend a firmer over a lighter for practicing. But as far as performing, I think evenness is the main consideration. Over the years you sit down at an instrument and you either feel at home with it or you don’t.

Q: Previously you said, quote: “Jazz truly is an ongoing lifelong search.” What does this search mean for you?

M: It’s trying to weed out the stuff that really doesn’t matter in improvising. And that is, for me as well as most of the musicians I’ve spoken with over the years, trying to get to the kernel of the music and get rid of all the extraneous stuff -- that is, either overplaying technically, trying too hard, being repetitive, or relying on safe, pat things you know you can do that always work. Trying to become the kind of player who is as intuitive and authentic as one can be -- that’s a goal that I think is a lifelong journey. There are a few people who come to mind who I think had that all together early on in their lives and careers. They didn’t seem to ever waver in their focus, or worry about those issues. Thelonious Monk certainly is one -- I’m just speaking now of pianists primarily. Art Tatum would definitely be another. Duke. Of course, these are huge giants, and the goals I mentioned are for the rest of us to try to attain. It’s a level of pure creative expression, where you’ve shed the other junk. Everybody is guilty at times of the lapses I’ve talked about. It’s just a question of how you deal with them. The great players make it sound easy and natural.

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